Italy, a cultural superpower

Updated 02 June 2012
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Italy, a cultural superpower

The Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith, to explain the miracle of post war Italian reconstruction, claimed that “the real reason is that Italy has incorporated in its products an essential component of culture, and cities such as Milan, Parma, Florence, Siena, Venice, Rome, Naples and Palermo, while having very poor infrastructure, display in their standard of living a huge amount of beauty”.
This is the source from where the creativity of our production system, based on beauty and harmony, originates. Italian design and the greater part of what is considered beautiful in the world identify with Italian products.
There are certainly other, more ancient civilizations, but surely, no other has steadily produced as much as Italy throughout the centuries. And even in periods of decadence, there were no interruptions in the creative process in all fields; from the visual arts to architecture, engineering, music, literature, cinema, philosophy, law, the political and social sciences, the exact sciences, in contexts that have spread out throughout the world absorbing contributions from other civilizations.
The Etruscan roots, Greek-Roman and Judeo- Christian, the contribution of Islam, the immensity of the Renaissance, have all taken from the world, then elaborated, enriched and returned to the world the highest in knowledge and creation. This ability is typical of the greatest civilizations, although none have done so with such intensity as our peninsula.
Italy is the country that counts the highest number of UNESCO cultural and natural sites (47 in a world list of 936). From the North to the South, all sites - well beyond those surveyed by UNESCO - testify this magnitude. A tremendous responsibility: a great heritage to be preserved. This great historical and artistic heritage makes Italy the first in the world despite its rather limited size - about 60 million people who reside in an area of just 300 thousand square km .
But if culture is well rooted in our past, it is also a pillar of the present, of progress and sustainability. The cultural industry is a significant part of the production of wealth and employment in Italy :
4.9% of GDP ,1,400,000 employees, 400,000 businesses involved. The Italian film production industry is the third in the world. In the last ten years as much as 1207 films have been put on the market. Book industry is also a strong asset: Italy counts a very high number of publishing companies (7,590 in 2010); the De Agostini Group is ranking 10th in the world for sales. Turin, with the “Salone Internazionale del Libro”, hosts the second largest book fair in Europe, the first one since 2006 for the number of visitors.
Not to mention the indirect but powerful (not easily measurable) effect of culture on the promotion in the world of Italy as a top tourist destination. Italy’s heritage draws more than 45 million visitors every year, making tourism our primary industry, accounting for 8.6% of GDP and makes Italy a brand of quality and beauty.
Besides, Italy has been supporting
archaeological, anthropological and ethnological missions abroad for many years. These missions are not only scientific, but are also a valuable tool for training of local operators and provide technology transfer in some sectors, such as archaeology, restoration and protection of cultural heritage, in which Italy has an internationally recognized level of excellence. This activity also represents a commitment to actively contribute to intercultural dialogue and development policies in many countries, even remote areas, where missions are sometimes the only Italian cultural presence.
Italy is second only to China in the export of design products, for a global value of $ 24,802 millions. It is also second (to Germany) for the number of registered patents (2003-2009).


Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins. (Supplied)
Updated 23 July 2019
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Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

  • Inside the Emirati artist’s inaugural solo exhibition in London, ‘I Met a Traveler From an Antique Land’

LONDON: You are searching for treasure. Several potential locations are marked with an ‘x’ on your map. You move methodically from site to site, always to be met with disappointment — never striking gold. Are you, in following trails set by others, missing the treasure ‘hidden’ in plain view?

This is one of the conundrums posed in the artworks of Sheikha Alyazia Bint Nahyan Al-Nahyan, whose inaugural solo exhibition in London presented a thought-provoking range of work fusing the ancient past with modern life.

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins, reflecting Arab, Roman and Phoenician influences. She described the coins, embedded in the marble, as symbolic of the great treasures buried in secret locations that were sought out and fought over by many. 

Al-Nahyan named her exhibition — held at Pi Artworks from June 25 to July 7 — with the opening line of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias”: “I met a traveler from an antique land.” (Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II.)

Mishmash Dirham. (Supplied) 

The poem, published in 1818, imagines a meeting between the narrator and a traveller who describes a ruined statue lying in the desert. The description of the statue is a meditation on the fragility of human power and on the effects of time: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains: round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Maybe a positive thing from looking to the past is that it proves it is only human to repeat the mistake and the lesson,” Al-Nahyan told Arab News. “Studying the past is a realization of human nature, individually or in groups, right or wrong. This natural feeling of connectivity is something I usually aim for.”

There is humor in some of her work — particularly the depictions of old commercial airline advertisements from the 1950s and 60s with ancient figures superimposed in the frames. They certainly give the viewer pause for thought about how much our world has changed in the short time since air travel became widely available.

The exhibition’s curator, Janet Rady, said of Al-Nahyan: “She has been practicing art from a very young age and is self-taught. She is incredibly talented, and you see this in the wide range of her work, which uses all sorts of different media. I can’t necessarily call her a pop artist or a collage artist or an installation artist; she is in fact all of these things, but it is the concept behind her work — connecting the past with the present — which is important.”

The UAE’s UK ambassador, Mansoor Abulhoul, was present at the opening and he particularly admired Al-Nahyan’s works based on the classic wooden board game Carrom paired with a modern video game.

Carrom Station in Motion. (Supplied) 

“I first played Carrom with my cousins as a boy, and she has combined it with modern computer games, which is very creative,” he said. He pointed out that her innovative work ties in well with the dynamic of the UAE.

“Next year we have EXPO 2020, with its theme ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.’ It’s very much about our roots and how we take them forward, how we develop the mind and global cooperation,” he said. 

The exhibition included a short clip from Al-Nahyan’s upcoming film “Athel,” written by Al-Nahyan’s sister, Sheikha Shamsa. It centers on a strange encounter in the desert between a pre-Islamic poet and a modern-day TV presenter. “Athel” is set for release later this year and stars Hala Shiha and Mansour Al-Fili.

“The idea behind it all is taken from the tradition of Arabic poetry — its wisdom and, sometimes, risks,” Al-Nahyan explained. “And ending with a realization of one tribal law putting redemption and family before all.” She added that there are some “light-hearted” moments in the film too.

Arabic poetry is an ongoing inspiration for Al-Nahyan’s work, adding another layer of meaning to many of her pieces.

“The Arabic language is poetic, and Arabs and other cultures around the world have documented their lives through poetry,” she said. “So, for example, when tackling the topic of what is considered treasure, we found different meanings in various verses. Like when (pre-Islamic poet) Zuhair Bin Abi Salma refers to glory as the only true treasure.”

There is a much to absorb and reflect on in this exhibition which opens windows into many facets of Arab history and culture and poses universal questions about humanity and what constitutes real treasure.